The Big Brain Theory
In its study by sociologists, anthropologists and economists, society has lately been described as a "collective intelligence" and figuratively likened to a brain. Indeed, society functions as if it was a comprehensive construct directed by the people, just as a brain is a big box for neurons to set up an electrical party –both the brain and society have also been compared to a computer, after all.
«This sort of [democratic] effort is especially important if we wish to make our collective intelligence more conscious, intentional and wise -- a development I believe is vital to our survival through the 21st Century. But collective intelligence will go on as long as society exists, even without these innovations. Collective intelligence, like individual intelligence, just IS.» -Tom Atlee, 'Is Collective Intelligence Like Individual Intelligence?'
The amazingly simple metaphor –that I will henceforth refer to by the tongue-in-cheek name of “The Big Brain Theory”– works surprisingly well in accounting for many fields of the study of society and does not perish when confronted to less cooperative forms of live organization such as fascism. It sure seems obvious that the metaphor should only work when society is in a state of democracy or, better yet, a scientifically-driven system where power is not even held by the opinions of the people but by hard facts the people prove scientifically. Indeed, Pierre Lévy said in the topic that «totalitarianism collapsed in the face of new forms of mobile and cooperative labor. It was incapable of collective intelligence.»
Alas, that is not entirely true. Certainly, all of this is just used as an analogy for the benefit of popular science and, as it always happens with analogies, it does not constitute an exact match. But we can tweak and expand the point of view of this idea and realize that society works as a collective even in a totalitarian top-down approach to government –it just takes a hell of a lot more time because those states hinder cooperation, putting barriers between people. So I'm not saying totalitarian governments aid to collective intelligence in any way, but quite the contrary: our Big Brain emerges despite of it. Dictatorship is to societies what brain damage is to our minds.
Why exactly does The Big Brain Theory still work in so a closed system? Well, let’s start by reasoning that the aforementioned system in which facts rule fits better than a democracy in the collective brain picture because a science-driven society arrives faster and more successfully to decisions, better mirroring the nearly instantaneous connectedness among neuronal networks.
Actually, the comparison may not be fair, as a scientifically minded culture would consciously base itself on our mental processes; a completely bottom-up approach with all kinds of social and natural scientists and technicians working first independently and then together in a network of sorts, resulting in whatever the conclusions derived from the studies are. There is no centralization of power and decision making, no over-arching intention, but a myriad of confined conscious actions that unconsciously define the path the whole society will take when connected to the network, to society, to our Big Brain –that’s how the brain works and that’s exactly how nature works from chemistry to evolution by natural selection; there is no intrinsic need for an all-encompassing power, be it a creator God in nature or a traditional government in society.
An objective system is a touch better than a democracy just as a democracy is a tad better than a dictatorship –and as such, this power of the facts works better in the analogy because it is faster, more streamlined and there is no overarching intention by any government to –almost always unintentionally– hinder progress. A dictatorship takes that to the far extreme by not only putting a big wall among people but stepping on them too. By doing so, progress is held up as much as language is held up by aphasia –and the only way to notice any progress at all is to take a big step back and sample a much bigger period of time, where one can notice a slight improvement over the disease, be it a stagnant government or a disability resulted from a lesion in the left brain.
So then, it is critical to understand the fact that the freer people are the more progressive society will be, just as a healthy, disease-free brain is able to do its work without any hindrance:
«I further suggest that the primary VALUE of collective intelligence is not to help one collective manipulate or get an edge on another, but to enable democratic and self-organizing systems to respond creatively to the changing conditions in and around them. The highest purpose of collective intelligence is to access the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole -- at least as much through high quality dialogue and deliberation as through tracking individual data points and inputs.» -Tom Atlee, 'Let Us Please Frame Collective Intelligence As Big As It Is'
But there is a yet unmentioned parallel between societies and the incredibly complex data processors inside our heads. As far as I know, this matter has not been addressed: we can keep extending the analogy to a theoretical transition from a kind of society to another. Consciousness is the key to human development. This is no New Age nonsense: what I mean by consciousness is common knowledge; in this case, common knowledge about the unstoppable evolution of humankind. If it sounds incredibly idealistic, that is because it probably is –just as it is very difficult to rethink what you unconsciously take for granted, it is very difficult for a society to shift views fast enough. When it does, it is usually after a pretty big toll consisting of blood.
American poet Taylor Mali once said that «changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.» And he is absolutely right, just as everyone of us who have reconsidered our most basic assumptions knows: taking what you considered 'common sense', common knowledge or any other fundamental way of thought and subjecting it to the same critical scrutiny any other idea deserves is far from easy and may leave you more confused than before, as a negative answer does not constitute the immediate appearance of a replacement –something many anti-science people just don't understand, by the way; i.e. even if you could disprove natural selection, creationism is certainly not the next best thing.
I wrote about this transition in an article called "Social Evolution in an emergent society", in which I tried to devise a way in which to avoid the usual bloodshed: it basically comes down to consciously noticing the inevitable transition and embracing it in the best possible way. But of course, an individual is much more easily convinced than the whole society –the Big Brain is, well, bigger.
«[..] how can you avoid the continuation of the 'stagnation-revolution-stagnation' cycle in the culture that emerges from the new techniques? How do you create a society that evolves accepting the little mutations, instead of standing up to them to eventually explode and succumb to the next logical step? How do you make it so that the very basis of society, with its culture and economy, stops the human trend of shifting the socio-economic model by dominating the ruling system? In short, how can we avoid an established system and arrive at an emergent system?
The point is to organize these new techniques in a way that those pioneers in the forefront of social evolution cannot (and don't want to) be leaders, but doers. Instead of leading the system in an overarching way, they do stuff to improve specific characteristics within it. Therefore, to avoid the stagnation of ideas at a social level, to avoid an established system, you simply cannot have a government as we know it; each and every individual governs or leads society by means of their input in techniques and culture.
[...] That is how you create an emergent society. Following the natural course of technology, communication among human beings is eased until a global interconnection is achieved, with which every individual knows perfectly that their contribution will help themselves, their family and everyone else and that the input of the rest of the world will follow the same path, uninterrupted by any government that would be unnecessary in this historical context. Not having an overarching power, in this system the only constant is change. The 'stagnation-revolution-stagnation' cycle and the struggle between new and old ideas simply ceases to work and is naturally replaced by another paradigm: the social evolution in an emergent society..»
The only way to reach such a state of human organization is to 'somehow' draw everyone's attention to the fact that some kind of transition is going to happen whether we like it or not, so then logic tells us we'd better be socially prepared for it. Please notice the emphasis on the 'somehow': the processes by which that kind of transition could happen are so incredibly complex that I genuinely doubt a thorough analysis is even possible –politics, social movements, technological pressures and environmental pressures will all come into play and they are a very dangerous mix if the shift is not consciously recognized by the people. The spreading of awareness of this crucial fact of the transition comes to much more worthwhile activism than any kind of fantastic socio-political transition plan.
In your live, when your mind takes things for granted unconsciously, when the most basic assumptions go on unnoticed without a proper analysis of the facts, you are the one to suffer if and when something challenges that assumption. When the Big Brain's most basic assumptions are not critically examined and society inevitably shifts from one kind of system to a very different one, we all suffer.